PARIS: Thirty-four Iraqi Christians and a Muslim guard wounded in a deadly Al-Qaeda attack on a Baghdad church just over a week ago flew in to France late Monday for admission to hospitals for treatment.
Bearing bullet and grenade wounds from the October 31 attack, they arrived at Orly airport outside Paris on a plane dispatched to Iraq earlier Monday to collect them.
The group, traveling with 19 companions, was welcomed at the airport by French Immigration Minister Eric Besson who said at the weekend it fitted France’s "tradition of asylum" to take them in.
They were immediately loaded into ambulances and sent to several hospitals around Paris.
They were wounded when Al-Qaeda gunmen stormed a Syriac Catholic cathedral during Sunday mass, prompting an assault by Iraqi and US security forces.
In all, 44 worshippers, two priests and seven security force personnel died during the seizure of the cathedral and the ensuing shootout when it was stormed by troops.
The five militants who carried out the attack were also killed.
Around 60 people were wounded in the bloodbath and France swiftly offered to provide specialist treatment for those with the most serious injuries.
France plans a second evacuation flight in the coming weeks to bring out a further 93 Christians.
"France, when it is carrying out operations of solidarity, does not ask questions about skin color or religion," Besson told journalists just before the plane landed.
The minister said at the weekend that 1,300 Iraqi Christians had been granted asylum in France since autumn 2007, an acceptance rate of 85 percent for asylum-seekers from among the community.
"France is the leading land for asylum in Europe and the world’s second behind the United States," he said Sunday, ahead of Monday’s medical evacuation flight.
"We are the European country that receives the most refugees who have been persecuted because of their political opinions, their religion or the colour of their skin," he said.
The Iraqis who arrived Monday would within 24 hours have a temporary asylum-seekers’ card, renewable every six months, with authorization to work in France, Besson said.
Full asylum would be "handed out generously," the minister added.
Al-Qaeda said it carried out the church attack to force the release of converts to Islam allegedly being detained by the Coptic Church in Egypt.
Days afterwards it declared Christians everywhere "legitimate targets".
"All Christian centers, organizations and institutions, leaders and followers, are legitimate targets for the mujahedeen (holy warriors) wherever they can reach them," said a statement by the self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), the local branch of Osama bin Laden’s militant network.
An estimated 800,000 Christians lived in Iraq before the US-led invasion of 2003 but that number has since shrunk to around 500,000 in the face of repeated attacks against their community and churches.
Christians in Baghdad have now dwindled to around 150,000, a third of their former population in the capital.
An Iraqi Christian leader in Britain said Sunday Iraq’s Christians should leave the country or face being killed at the hands of Al-Qaeda.
"If they stay they will be finished, one by one," Archbishop Athanasios Dawood told the BBC.